November 18, 2010

Are you "out of the OCD closet"?

I’m not.  Well – that’s not true.  My parents and my boyfriend know the details.  A few of my friends know the “basics”.  But, for the most part, very few people know that I have OCD.  There are several reasons:
1.       First of all – there’s the mental health stigma in general.  So many people are “scared” of anything surrounding the topic of mental health.  I don’t know if this is because they have been there once or twice before themselves, and it was so painful that they are afraid that talking about it might “bring it back”, or if people are still fairly non-compassionate about depression and anxiety, and still think that those of us who suffer from mental health issues should just “snap out of it”.  The few people who know the “basics” know that I have depression and anxiety.  That’s it. 
2.       Then there’s the relatively wide-spread misunderstanding of OCD and what it is about.  For the majority of people, when OCD is brought up, they think either “hand washer” or “perfectly clean house”.  Believe me – I am neither of those - and those who know me can see that very clearly.  Don’t get me wrong.  OCD peaks its ugly head up every now and then in those areas too.  I like to “feel clean”, and I like my house to be clean in a certain way - my specific way - but to look from the outside into my life, one would never think “she has OCD”.  Leading me to the primary reason that I don’t tell people that I have OCD. 
3.       Most people know so little about OCD that they have never heard of Pure O OCD – those of us who’s obsessions and rituals are mostly in our heads.  They have never heard of someone who worries that he/she might be gay, or who worries that he/she might act on a violent thought.  Most people with very little knowledge and understanding of OCD probably wouldn’t understand.  They would probably think that those of us who doubt these things are in denial, or are potentially dangerous.  But then again, maybe I’m not giving people enough credit. 
The other day something very distressing happened.  As part of my therapy, I have been trying to immerse myself in my fear as much as possible.  I have put pictures of lesbian couples up on my bathroom mirrors.  I have the gay newspaper laying out on my coffee table.  I have post-it notes spread throughout my house reminding me about ritualizing, and how certainty is an illusion, etc.  On that particular day, I also happened to have Dr. Grayson's book out on my living room coffee table.  Obviously due to being “in the closet” with my OCD (I love that pun given my current OCD fears!), whenever I have friends coming over, I take down all the photos and put away all of the “evidence”.  I knew my boyfriend was coming over that morning, but he is used to all of this.  As I said – he is fully aware that I have OCD and how it is currently manifesting.  He is also usually very thoughtful about warning me if he is coming over with someone else.  But…….the other day he forgot. 
I was in the kitchen and he arrived with his friend Mark.  Panic suddenly hit me.  All I could think of was the newspaper sitting on the coffee table, and that Mark would surely see it.  I desperately tried to signal to my boyfriend my terror and concern, but he did not catch on.  Knowing that strategy wasn’t working, I came up with another one.  Any fly on the wall would have found this scenario laughable.  It was like watching an old “Three’s Company” episode.  I asked Mark if he had tried any of the preserves that I had recently made.  “Have you tried my pepper jelly?  What about my peach jam?”  Mark, confused, said that he hadn’t.  (I’m sure he wondered why I was asking this random question!) So I sent them out to the garage to get some.  “Go on.  Take Mark out to the garage to let him pick out all the preserves that he could want!” And on and on it went.  But not before I saw Mark wander over to my coffee table and take a look at what I had sitting smack dab in the centre – my gay newspaper, and my OCD book. 
Mark ended up leaving very quickly.  It was obvious something odd was going on.  As soon as he left, I let into my boyfriend with intense anger.  I was very anxious.  Mark saw the newspaper and he was going to think that I was in the process of coming out of the closet.  Why else would I have a gay magazine on my coffee table?  He was going to spread the word to all of his friends, and all of our acquaintances in the small community in which we live.  I absolutely freaked.  How could my boyfriend be so careless? 
Of course my boyfriend felt horrible, and apologized profusely.  Somewhere, deep down inside, I knew that I was over-reacting.  I knew that the most therapeutic response would be to take the risk that Mark did in fact see the newspaper, and that he might in fact think that I am coming out of the closet as a lesbian.  After all – as my boyfriend said – there are lots of reasons why you could have a gay magazine on your coffee table.  Perhaps I picked it up because I saw an interesting article on the cover.  Or, even more likely – perhaps a gay friend of mine brought it over.  Can you see how someone without OCD was able to think objectively?  My boyfriend even said that he doubted that his friend Mark even noticed.  There was no way that I was taking that chance. 
In the end I decided that the best thing to do would be to let Mark know that I have OCD, and not mention the gay newspaper.  So, my boyfriend went to see Mark and let him know that the reason things were awkward and weird is because I have OCD, and I had left an OCD book on my coffee table, and felt weird about it.  Mark’s response?  “Yeah – don’t we all have OCD?”  (Which is interesting in and of itself!  On one hand, his response showed acceptance towards me.  On the other hand, it also proves my points above – the lack of knowledge that people really have about the disorder.)
It’s all over now, and later in the day I was able to joke about it with my boyfriend.  I apologized for freaking out, and he apologized for being careless.  This is a perfect example of how people close to people with OCD have to follow along with rituals.  And when they don’t – LOOK OUT.  When I mentioned this situation to my therapist, we laughed.  She said a situation like that is inevitable, and gave me some other examples of similar situations that her clients have had.  I know now that next time I will have to face the anxiety and the feared consequences.  Let's hope it doesn't happen again. 


  1. I can relate to all of the reasons you mention for limiting what you tell others about your OCD. I even have the stereotypical washing compulsions which people readily see and identify as part of the disorder. But sometimes this is even more frustrating because they try to reason with me as if I am afraid of germs and getting sick, which I am not. (Not that there is anything wrong with that type of OCD. No OCD fear is more valid or real in my mind than any other - they are all equal and equally capable of make those who have them suffer.) It's just frustrating when people think they know what's wrong and try to help, all without realizing that they are coming to conclusions based on the very little and misunderstood things they know about OCD. People assume they know what I am afraid of when really they have no idea. I'm not afraid of germs. I'm not afraid of getting sick. Rather I am afraid of "feeling dirty" or doing things "incorrectly" or "incompletely," so I find it frustrating when people assume they know what's up and try to reassure me that I shouldn't worry. Sorry, apparently I have a chip on my shoulder about all this, and I'm just now realizing it!

    I can see why it would be difficult to explain "pure o" fears, because if someone is not very open-minded and willing to try to understand, they might assume that, like you said, the sufferer is in denial or possibly dangerous, which is sad and unfortunate, because it's a hard enough burden to carry on your own without having to fear that others will only corroborate those fears if you try to explain them. But I guess that's part of the uncertainty we all have to accept.

    As for your fears about your boyfriend's friend seeing the newspaper, I think your boyfriend is right - there are a number of reasons that someone might think you have a gay newspaper, if they even saw it in the first place. Perhaps the thought was that you might be "in the closet" was one of reasons that crossed that person's mind, but who knows? Maybe he's in the closet and thought his secret had been revealed somehow! Or, maybe he has OCD, too, and was worried that you saw him looking at it and might think that he was gay! There are millions of reasons we can come up with, but a lot of times I think we assume that people are paying more attention to and thinking more about what we do more often than they really ever are. People have their own worries and thoughts they are attending to, so they aren't always out there spotting ours :).

    I'm always struck by your insight into your disorder. It's apparent that you are very aware of what's going on, what would be good for you in terms of facing your OCD, and realizing when you are probably over-responding because of the disorder. I love reading your blog because you have this keen insight into your OCD. On that note, it also sounds like your boyfriend is really understanding and that you guys know how to work things out when something related to OCD upsets you. That's awesome :).

  2. Fellow OCD Sufferer - I can totally understand that having the "typical" OCD manifestations would bring up it's own problems - especially the ones you mentioned! It would also be hard because it then would be so much easier for those close to you to "help" you ritualize by reassuring you or telling you "you have nothing to worry about". I'm shocked to hear that you think I have so much insight into my OCD fears - there are some days that I definitely do not feel that way!! But thanks for the compliment :o) My boyfriend is definitely supportive with regards to my OCD and I am very thankful for that. We've had some struggles figuring out how he can be supportive (ie: not reassuring etc), but this is a learning process for all of us!

  3. Some people know I have OCD and some people don't. I kind of get the impression that some people don't want to know about my depression, ocd, or anxiety - telling them might make them uncomfortable. I recently stumbled into telling some person I don't know very well that I went to a support group for mentally ill people. The moment was awkward and short-lived and I've decided to laugh about it and try to move on (because I can't take it back anyway).

  4. Oh, and I like to be vague about parts of my ocd. Like harm ocd. I don't want to be miss-understood. But you probably have a vague idea of what I mean that is specific enough for me to feel I've communicated. And I hope someone without ocd who didn't understand would just go, "huh? I don't get it" instead of "oh, no, abigail's such a terrible person!"

  5. Abigail - that's very brave of you to be so open about your support group! I agree that most people don't want to hear about issues related to mental health. I don't quite understand why though - since so many actually suffer from depression and some form of anxiety.

  6. My husband, sister and a few of my close friends know about my OCD. I write my blog anonymously, in part because it was the only way I could get myself to start writing. "Exposure Woman" is like a persona, the part of myself that is working on the OCD, and being anonymous allows me to really explore my OCD, and share with others. I can imagine telling more people in the future--I think I will get to the point of wanting to do that, simply to show that it's possible to have OCD and be a "normal" person(as if there's any such thing as normal).

    In regards to your experience with the gay magazine, I understand that panicky feeling. My nephew was diagnosed with OCD, and I lent my sister-in-law my Grayson book, and then felt intensely anxious, imagining her reading all the harm obsession stuff in the book, and what would she think of me etc. I wanted to grab the book back from her. My exposure has been to leave the book with her, and not ask for it back, and overall I think it's been more helpful than if I had asked to have it back and made myself hypervigilant.

  7. Funny timing. Just last week I left the Grayson book out when my boyfriend came over. Ack! He's made a few comments since then that lead me to believe he saw it, but I'm just ignoring the whole thing for now. It'll be out there (no pun intended!) eventually. It's always something!

  8. Expwoman - sometimes it's hard to recognize what could be an exposure - but that example of loaning the Grayson book to your sister-in-law is a good one! I would probably find a way of justifying asking for it back.
    Ann - That's exposure! Good for you! I find "coming out of the closet" to new friends/boyfriends very difficult - that was a great step!

  9. Hello, I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to start your blog. I really found your blog encouraging, even though you are still working through your ocd; aren't we all..? To just have another person be honest about their fears and worries somehow makes me feel a little better about myself. I have looked at hundreds of sites, I'm sure, just to find answers...which I KNOW I shouldn't be doing excessively, but something about your blog spoke to me. I guess it's because instead of finding THE answer to my problem, it's proof that maybe there is NO answer, just people like me that are doing the best that they can to manage this problem and little by little find ways to become stronger. To know that some other woman in this world is afraid of becoming lesbian or terrified that some day she might realize she is no longer REALLY in love. I guess for me it helps confirm that we do have ocd or at the very least extreme obsessions...maybe this is a slight form of reassurance...but is something I can tuck away and find some comfort in. You are not alone and neither am I :) I feel so much of what you write....the worries in my head, the difficulty to pinpoint the worries so I can manage them, the constant rumination impossible to physically see making it so hard to end, the feeling of having it all cured only to find it come back. No doubt this is a hard condition to work through, but by being aware, at least, we are making steps in the right direction!

  10. Bumbly - we are not alone! Thank you for taking the time to read my site. I have found a nice little support group here amongst some OCD bloggers and it is amazing how much it helps to know that others are thinking and feeling the same way. The fears might not be exactly the same (or maybe they are), but the whole process is similar. I hope what I write will help you in battling OCD!